This post is less tightly tied into my dissertation ideas, but is too big not to mention – the amazing news that the United States Supreme Court has finally legalised gay marriage at a national level! To me, this news goes to show even more that our gender should not and does not dictate our interests and our passions. And if the most powerful government in the world can make a change to bring about gender equality, I can’t help but feel that we all can make a difference to improve equality in our own ways. That includes publishers, booksellers, and indeed book buyers – is it really okay to tell a little boy that his interests should be blue, dinosaurs and spaceships rather than pink ballet dancers and pretty flowers? The Let Books be Books campaign has made fantastic headway in the last year, asking publishers to take of the ‘for girls’ and ‘for boys’ labels. But is this enough? The decision made by the US court this week was not a quick or simple process, yet perseverance and determination have paid off to result in joyful implications for many US citizens and inspire celebrations all over the world, regardless of gender or sexuality. A few years ago, this change would have seemed impossible. So this makes me think that change for children’s books, and the attitudes approaching gender, can be possible too.
With around 10 000 children’s books published in the UK per year, booksellers understandably have a demanding task to choose those titles to stock, let alone which to place on prominent displays. Studies have shown that retail displays are major drivers of sales in bookshops. Bookshops approach the decision-making process in varying ways – some charge for premium positions, others are chosen at the booksellers’ discretion without financial incentive.
I recently visited the children’s department of a local bookshop. Here is the view that greeted me:
Usbourne were one of the first publishers to sign up to ‘Let Books be Books’. These books do not explicitly state the gender of their intended audience. And yet. Take a look at the reverse of this display:
It is not easy to ignore the not-so-subtle gender implications in these displays. By pointing this out, I am not trying to say that girls should not like pink and dresses and sparkles. Anyone who knows me will recognise this preference. But what does strike me harks back to Walter’s rallying cry of ‘choice’. What if these displays and publications suggest to any boy that he is not welcome to the world of ballerinas and dresses, or that his parents should discourage an interest in dolls or interior décor? And what if, flipping this around, a girl feels less inclined to build her own spaceship or her relatives feel uncomfortable buying her a book about sport? While there may not be a gender sticker over these titles, I can’t help but feel that there is a clear message of intent, and I wonder what the impossible-to-directly-measure repercussions of such divides could be.
Thank you so much to everyone who has been commenting and completing the polls so far – you have been awesome!
So to keep you up-to-date with some of my research, I want to draw your attention to a specific title, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter. What really stood out to me is her emphasis on CHOICE. Living Dolls presents anecdotal and scientific evidence to argue that creating a society which harshly segregates the interests of girls and boys is damaging to all of us, and limits the choices available to anyone.
Creating a world where girls are, in her words, ‘modelling themselves on the plastic charm of a pink and smiling doll’ leads me to question the role of the publisher in this cycle. Certain arguments exclaim that the publisher is merely responsive to the whims and habits of a buying public and is only able to create what the market demands (and purchases). But what about the other side? Publishers are gatekeepers to culture rather than slaves to public preference. The other side of the argument goes that while there is of course a business obligation to create sales, publishers arguably have a moral responsibility to produce content which shapes our understanding of what society is and could be, rather than passively reflecting what may have come before. Through the perspective of Living Dolls, the second viewpoint appears the more convincing and promising option.
Thanks for visiting my blog – it’s all to do with issues around labelling books for boys or girls, and I really want to hear your views! So for some background, I’m currently studying for my MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes, and this summer I’m researching how and why children’s books have been/are marketed specifically towards one gender or the other. This is all for my dissertation, which has been largely inspired by the Let Books Be Books campaign. I’ll be using this blog to record my research progress, and would love to hear your opinions and feedback!
So please have a click around, answer some polls and comment on anything that interests you! If there is something that you are interested in that I’ve not explored yet then leave a comment about that. All views will be equally valued so please do let me know what you think. Anecdotes, experiences or just casual ponderings are all fantastic – don’t be shy!
Thank you, thank you X